Monday, July 30, 2012

Be true to your school?

Okay, I've gotten semi-used to the idea that you can customize just about anything. I was even sort of enthusiastic about the notion of a Virginia Tech garden gnome. But stilettos? Especially stilettos in the rather hideous school colors of burnt orange and maroon? Much as I like saying I got a couple of my degrees from VPI, I've got to wonder about anyone who would actually wear these.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Some northwoods fiberglass

Located next to the visitor information center on Wisconsin Highway 70 in St. Germain, Wisconsin. I could not find an ID tag on him so don't know if he's a F.A.S.T. product or not. I am assuming he's fairly old, probably late '50s or early 1960s, because the level of detail and the overall finish isn't as good as on more recent products.
According to various sources, there never was an actual Chief St. Germain. The statue is supposedly a tribute to the Native American heritage of the area, or at least that's the current explanation. The reality is that if it really were a tribute (or if the local Ojibwe had been consulted), Chief St. Germain would probably be wearing a shirt instead of looking like a stereotype straight out of a 1950s Saturday matinee Western.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer reading

I've been on kind of a Terry Pratchett binge lately. I found a stack of Pratchett paperbacks (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Sourcery, Pyramids, and a bunch more) in the storage shed and am discovering that reading Pratchett is akin to eating potato chips. The Discworld novels are addictive; after reading one, you end up reaching for another. And then another.

Pratchett's novels are definitely mind candy. He gets in some good satirical digs at contemporary society, but basically the novels are just plain fun to read: lots of word play and general goofiness, good humored mocking of various sword-and-sorcery and/or fantasy cliches -- one of his characters is Cohen the Barbarian, a geriatric hero who answers a question none of us ever thought to ask (What happens if heroes survive to AARP age?). In the real world, they go into politics and become governor of California; in Discworld, they drink a lot of soup because their teeth are gone.

Slight digression. I love the illustration of Discworld and wish I knew who to credit, but it was an anonymous image found through Google.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thinking about politics

Once again, Matt Taibbi nailed it when it comes to describing Mittens:

Romney can’t even be mean with any honesty. Even when he’s pandering to viciousness, ignorance and racism, it comes across like a scaly calculation. A guy who feels like he has to take a dump on the N.A.A.C.P. in Houston in order to connect with frustrated white yahoos everywhere else is a guy who has absolutely no social instincts at all. Someone like Jesse Helms at least had a genuine emotional connection with his crazy-mean-stupid audiences. But Mitt Romney has to think his way to the lowest common denominator, which is somehow so much worse.
Most presidents have something under the hood – wit, warmth, approachability, something. Even the most liberal football fan could enjoy watching an NFL game with George Bush. And even a Klansman probably would have found some of LBJ’s jokes funny. The biggest office in the world requires someone who buzzes with enough personality to fill the job, and most of them have it.
But Romney doesn’t buzz with anything. His vision of humanity is just a million tons of meat floating around in a sea of base calculations. He’s like a teenager who stays up all night thinking of a way to impress the prom queen, and what he comes up with is kicking a kid in a wheelchair. Instincts like those are probably what made him a great leveraged buyout specialist, but in a public figure? Man, is he a disaster. It’s really incredible theater, watching the Republicans talk themselves into this guy.
Read more:

I haven't had much to say on the subject of politics lately. I look at what's happening in general and find myself being quietly amazed a day would come when I'd start missing Richard Nixon. To paraphrase Robert Reich, calling Romney an empty suit is an insult to empty suits everywhere. Something like a third of the voters in this country describe themselves as independents not affiliated with either party, and it's easy to see why. The Republicans have allowed themselves to be hijacked by the crazies, the tinfoil hat crowd that used to hang around on the fringes being laughed at, and, with a few rare exceptions, the Democrats have evolved into Eisenhower Republicans.

One thing that astounds me about that lunatic fringe, the teabaggers and closet racists, is the way they cling to their delusions and conspiracy theories. They keep rehashing the same weird obsessions -- the birth certificate, President Obama's Hyde Park house, his college grades -- as though if they say some of this stuff enough times it'll start to sound sane. I don't get it. The whole birth certificate fantasy is so convoluted and bizarre it's just laughable, and why would anyone care what type of grades any politician received in a freshman English composition course?

Ditto the bizarre speculations about the Obamas' purchase of their house in Hyde Park. The big question the teabaggers and conspiracy nuts keep tossing out is "How could they afford it?!" The implication is that there were backdoor deals and special favors. Pshaw. The house cost $1.65 million  when the Obamas bought it in June 2005. They did conventional financing just like any other home buyer. At the time of purchase, the Obamas had a healthy combined 6-figure income and his book was a best seller. If there were shenanigans going on, the mortgage would be a lot closer to paid off than it is right now. Based on the information provided on the President's 2011 income tax return, at this point in time he probably still owes close to $800,000 on the house. 

As a fan of "House Hunters" on HGTV, I feel confident in saying that there are a lot of buyers out there who could purchase just as much house with much, much shakier credit than the Obamas had in 2005. Back in 2005, with the housing bubble expanding at full force and banks issuing mortgages on McMansions to Waffle House fry cooks, anyone could buy a lot of house without much effort with absolutely no need for any political favors, shady dealings, or influence peddling. Episode after episode of "House Hunters" back then featured buyers who'd be described in what can only be termed lower middle class income terms ("Ellen is a secretary while Joe is a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy"), buyers whose joint income in a sane world might have made them eligible for a Habitat for Humanity house. Then the narrator would intone, "They've been pre-approved for $600,000." WTF? These people can't be taking home much over $3,000 monthly between the two of them and they're buying a house that with a conventional fixed rate 30-year mortgage would have payments close to $4,000 a month? Of course, we know now that they weren't doing conventional mortgages -- they were being suckered into doing interest only and indulging in a fantasy that low payments would last forever -- but that's the subject for a different post.

Bottom line, though, is that if manicurists and fry cooks were being sold over-priced McMansions, why should there be any mystery over how a successful upper middle class couple could manage to buy a house in Hyde Park, especially when their household included two white collar wage earners with 6-figure annual incomes?  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Time travel

The dining room in this part of the supper club is
 called, of course,  the Tepee Room.
We visited the 1960s last night. I'm not sure just how long this supper club has existed in Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin, but it's been there for as long as I can remember, which is at least 25 years. Going by the politically incorrect Indian motif, I'm guessing it has to go back at least 40 years, maybe more, back to the days prior to the political battles over treaty rights in northern Wisconsin. Every time we drove by it on U.S. 45, we'd say the same thing: "One of these days, we should stop there for dinner." 

The timing was never quite right, though. The Red Man is a supper club, and we'd be driving by in the middle of the day. Or maybe the timing was okay but we'd already eaten dinner at the Older Daughter's house only an hour or two before. I suppose we could have just stopped for drinks simply to see the interior, but that's not really something a person wants to do when she's still got two hours of driving ahead of her. Besides, the only true test of a supper club is to eat the food it serves.

Yesterday, however, the timing was perfect. It was late enough in the day that the supper club was open but still early enough that the parking lot wasn't packed -- that meant we could probably get a table quickly. So we stopped.

It really was like stepping back several decades in time. The interior is classic northwoods rustic -- knotty pine paneling, a taxidermy display (a cluster of fish, probably bass), a soot-covered fireplace. Service was fast and friendly, the menu completely typical for a northern Wisconsin supper club: lots of red meat in various forms plus the classic broasted* chicken. The S.O. ordered ribs, I had the broasted chicken special and then indulged in a brandy Alexander. I have no clue why I felt the urge to order an ice cream drink -- maybe it was the retro ambiance that compelled me to call for the Wayback Machine and return to the days when bartenders had to cope with sloshed housewives ordering grasshoppers and pink squirrels. I should have taken a picture: it arrived looking like a parfait from Dairy Queen with the various layers of booze and ice cream swirled elegantly in the glass.

Would we eat there again? Yes. The food was good, prices were reasonable, service was fast and friendly, and the bartender obviously knows how to do more than just pour shots of Jagermeister.

[*Why is the process called Broasting when it's actually deep fat frying in a pressure cooker?]

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Help, a review, sort of

I finally got around to reading The Help this week. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past three years, the book is a best selling novel that describes the lives of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. The movie version came out last year; it received several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I didn't see the movie or read the book before we left Atlanta -- my name hadn't reached the top of the waiting list at the library.

Turned out the book was worth reading. The quality of the writing is decent, especially for a first novel, and the story line overall holds a person's interest. It didn't contain any major surprises -- I knew that life in the segregated South was a bizarre sea of contradictions, with whites paying blacks to cook, clean, take care of kids, and nurse the elderly but at the same time insisting that blacks and whites couldn't possibly drink out from the same water fountain or use the same toilets. There's some major cognitive dissonance going on when you don't want your maid pissing in the same porcelain as you, but at the same time you're eating food prepared by the maid, sleeping on sheets she washed, and living in a house she's cleaned. The servant is too dirty and/or crawling with germs to use your toilet, but you're willing to eat the soup she's cooked?

In any case, all those contradictions have been well-documented many times and from multiple perspectives, both as fiction and as autobiography (e.g., Coming of Age in Mississippi). We all also know that Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s was full of bigots, and that it was a particularly perilous time and place for anyone black who gave any appearance of supporting the civil rights movement. The Help didn't break any new ground, although there was some hoopla over the audacity of a white author daring to write in the voice of a black maid. That controversy, such as it was, struck me as flatout stupid. If writers could only write from their personal perspective, that would mean male authors couldn't have female characters in novels, young authors couldn't have anyone elderly, black authors couldn't include white characters, and you could never set a novel in a time period other than the one in which you were currently living . . . the whole point of writing fiction is being able to imagine how the world looks from a perspective other than your own.

Anyway, The Help did resonate with me. I found myself remembering my summer in Chicago as exploited labor a mother's helper many years ago. The summer of the year I graduated from high school I responded to a Help Wanted ad in the local newspaper -- Chicago families tended to advertise for  live-in help in newspapers in the western Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin; middle class urbanites apparently still viewed the northwoods as being full of potential Scandihoovian maids fresh off the boat and ripe for working for shit wages -- and was hired by a family that I'll call, for convenience's sake, the Kaplans. The deal was, if I recall correctly, $25 a week plus room and board, with Sunday morning and one weekday off.

Working for the Kaplans was an education. I went into the experience fairly naive and emerged as a nascent Marxist. It wasn't that I'd never had a job before. I'd been working since I was 12, mostly stoop labor in the summer picking strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and cucumbers but with some other odd jobs tossed in. However, the Kaplans were my first experience with an employer who seemed to confuse employees with indentured servants. They didn't go quite so far as building a separate water closet for me in the carport like one of the families in The Help does for their maid, but they came close. (Mrs. Kaplan made it pretty clear my blue collar white ass had better not ever go anywhere near the plumbing in the master bedroom.)

The Kaplans lived in a renovated brownstone in a neighborhood north of the Loop that had been posh in about 1890, had hit the skids for awhile, and was on its way back up. If I had to categorize the family politically and socio-economically, I'd say they were upper middle class liberals. Mr. Kaplan made a comfortable income working at a white collar occupation, Mrs. Kaplan got to be a stay-at-home mom (except she never was at home), and they had the requisite 2.5 kids (a boy and a girl from Mrs. Kaplan's first marriage, and a toddler from the current relationship), and they paid lip service to progressive causes like civil rights and school integration. The family was technically Jewish but thoroughly secularized -- they didn't even have a mezuzah by the door. For sure, they never went to temple and the Sabbath was a day like any other. 

As the summer progressed, I felt sorrier and sorrier for the two older kids. The toddler had it the best -- she spent her days with me. We walked to the park, we hung out with the other mother's helpers and their charges, we played with the puppy (the family had recently gotten a standard poodle), and in general the kid got to be a kid. As for the older kids, it may have been summer vacation for everyone else, but not for them. Their mother had their lives scheduled down to the nanosecond: summer school, guitar lessons, piano lessons, tennis lessons, swimming lessons, you name it. They got to rush from lesson to lesson, and come home for their evening meal of Spaghetti-Os, and then get hustled off to bed. The kids lived on a diet of Franco-American and Chef Boyardee; the poodle got chopped sirloin. When the kids weren't being hustled from lesson to lesson, they were listening to their mother's little lectures guaranteed to put them in therapy by adolescence. The son was stupid, the older daughter was unattractive. One of Mrs. Kaplan's favorite lectures to her daughter involved the crying need for rhinoplasty to "fix that Jewish nose" as soon as she was old enough. What type of mother tells a 10-year-old she needs a nose job while simultaneously instilling shame about her ethnic and religious heritage? Then again, Mrs. Kaplan's goal in life seemed to be to turn herself into a shiksa, complete with bleached blonde hair. She'd already bought herself a perfect Hollywood starlet nose.

It didn't take me long to figure out I'd been snookered. The other mother's helpers and nannies enlightened me pretty quickly to the fact I was working for a lower wage than average. The Kaplans had given me a day off that didn't synchronize with the traditional maid's day off -- no doubt a small attempt at preventing me from hanging out with other maids and finding out just how much more money and/or better working conditions I'd enjoy elsewhere. Maybe they didn't realize just how much time there is for schmoozing while sitting around watching toddlers play in a sandbox. Turned out my employers had a reputation in the neighborhood. The maids who were permanent, year-round help told me the Kaplans had a nifty habit of hiring a live-in housekeeper/nanny to work September through May for about four times what the teenage summer help got paid and then firing that person as soon as they had someone like me lined up for the summer months. 

So, in retrospect, what's the take-away, the bottom line? I guess what it comes down to is that, everything else being equal, some people are always going to be assholes. In a way, I was a lot luckier than the maids in The Help. When you're a person of color, you can never be sure if you're being treated like shit because the boss is a bigot or if you're being treated like shit because the boss is an asshat who treats everyone that way.  In my case, it was pretty clear the Kaplans were just jerks who'd try to take advantage of anyone unfortunate enough to end up working for them. Back in the 1960s, they went trolling for naive farm girls to exploit; no doubt now they're paying an undocumented immigrant with a marginal grasp of English to walk the dog.